Friday, 1 March 2013

Blue for remembrance

The picture at the top of this blog is a badge representing a cornflower. The cornflower, le bleuet, is the symbol of remembrance in France, just as the poppy is in British Commonwealth countries. Just like the poppy, the cornflower continued to grow and flower on shell-torn battlefields. Bleuet was also a nickname given to the young men of the Class of 1915, called up in December 1914. In French, un bleu is a generic nickname given to young recruits, originating in the previous century (apparently because so many turned up at the barrack gates wearing a blue workingman's smock); and when they were issued with the new horizon blue uniform, the name seemed doubly appropriate.

In 1916, two women, Suzanne Lenhardt and Charlotte Malterre, thought up a scheme for badly-wounded men, who had been discharged from the Army, to manufacture and sell small paper cornflowers as a way of earning a small income, and help get them back into work. Lenhardt was the chief nurse at the Invalides; her husband had been killed in Champagne in 1915. Charlotte Malterre was the daughter of General Niox, the Director of the Invalides, and the wife of Brigadier General Pierre Malterre, who had lost a leg in September 1914.

On 15 September 1920, Louis Fontenaille, the president of the Mutilés de France, the principal disabled soldiers' organisation, proposed to the Fédération Interalliée des Anciens Combattants that the cornflower should become the symbol of French service personnel killed during the war.
Originally, the production of the flowers was the responsibility of the individual pensioners of the Invalides, but a proper workshop was set up there in 1925. The cornflowers were sold on the streets of Paris from 11 November 1934 - 128,000 were sold. The following year, the State decreed that cornflowers should be worn on every 11 November, and permitted the sale of the flowers everywhere in France. In 1957, a second day of wear, 8 May, was added. From 11 November 2012, serving members of the French armed forces were permitted to wear a cornflower whilst in uniform.

The responsibility for producing the cornflowers is now that of the Oeuvre National du Bleuet de France, still based at the Invalides in Paris, which remains a home for old soldiers as well as a museum. Since 1991, its operations have been supervised by the Office National des Anciens Combattants et Victimes de Guerre (National Office for Former Soldiers and Victims of War), a government department with special responsibility for ex-servicemen.

Photos: the current bleuet, the logo of the Oeuvre National du Bleuet de France, and a cinderella stamp, from Wikipedia; the portraits of Lenhardt (top) and Malterre from

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